The Rio Theatre, originally The Big Nickel and later the National Theatre, was once located at 373 Yonge St (south of Gerrard St on the east side) in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto.
The Big Nickel Theatre
Built in 1913, architect John Wilson Siddall designed the Big Nickel Theatre. It cost $14,000 to construct the brick and steel “fireproof” building. The theatre’s main façade was faced with two colours of buff brick and featured decorative patterning. The entrance floor had white, green, brown, red, and black tiles with a mosaic big nickel in the centre.
Inside the entrance hall was a cigar store, the ticket office, and a ladies’ washroom. The 600-seat auditorium had a panelled and ornamented ceiling. The lower part of the walls was green burlap dado, while the upper portion was painted red. The theatre also had a mechanical (self-playing) organ with all the stops needed to create natural sounds and to “lend a touch of reality” to the movies.
About four years after The Big Nickel opened, the theatre was renamed the National. It remained the National Theatre until approximately 1940, when it became the Rio.
The Rio Theatre
In 1945, Sam Ulster and his son, Ben, leased the Rio Theatre. Soon after, they purchased the building. The Rio was known in the industry as a “grindhouse.” Seven days a week, from 9 am until midnight, the theatre showed action flicks. In 1972, for $1, you could see a triple feature or “a trio at the Rio.”
In 1980, the theatre, with its sticky floor, needed work. Now with about 490 seats, the screen had an 18-inch hole in it. Plus, the ceiling was falling due to a leak about midway into the auditorium to the left of the aisle. Even knowing the roof could collapse, patrons sat in the roped-off section. This was just a part of the Rio’s atmosphere. An inspector was sent out to the theatre and was assured by the manager that repairs would be made.
The Rio Theatre started showing four and five movies for one admission price, but attendance declined. In 1991, the Ulster family made the difficult decision to sell the building to a developer.
The Rio’s colourful, poster-plastered facade has been immortalized in movies filmed on Yonge St. The great-grandson of Sam Ulster kept a vast collection of those edgy and evocative posters. The Ulster family also once owned the Ace Theatre and Embassy Theatre and were also partners in the 7 & 27 Drive-In.
After the Theatre
The former theatre became commercial space and home to Granada TV Rental and the Love Shop. A portion of the building was also Loft Cinemas. The building was demolished around 2019, and the land is part of the Concord Sky condo development.
Rio Theatre Photos
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Apr 1, 1972, pg 15
The Toronto Sun Newspaper Archives: Feb 28, 1980, pg 48
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Feb 26, 2011, pg M4
Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Nov 11, 1991, pg D5